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BROADCASTING SERVICES AMENDMENT (MEDIA OWNERSHIP) BILL 2002
- Parl No.
- Question No.
Harradine, Sen Brian
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- Start of Business
- QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE
- DISTINGUISHED VISITORS
QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE
(Moore, Sen Claire, Hill, Sen Robert)
(Lightfoot, Sen Ross, Alston, Sen Richard)
(Marshall, Sen Gavin, Hill, Sen Robert)
(Bartlett, Sen Andrew, Hill, Sen Robert)
(Cook, Sen Peter, Hill, Sen Robert)
(Nettle, Sen Kerry, Hill, Sen Robert)
National Security: Terrorism
(Ludwig, Sen Joe, Ellison, Sen Chris)
Australian Defence Force: Support for Families
(Chapman, Sen Grant, Vanstone, Sen Amanda)
(Evans, Sen Chris, Hill, Sen Robert)
Immigration: Ms Puangthong Simaplee
(Greig, Sen Brian, Ellison, Sen Chris)
Transport: Border Protection
(Campbell, Sen George, Macdonald, Sen Ian)
(Buckland, Sen Geoffrey, Hill, Sen Robert)
Immigration: Refugees and Asylum Seekers
(Colbeck, Sen Richard, Ellison, Sen Chris)
- QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE: ADDITIONAL ANSWERS
- QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE: TAKE NOTE OF ANSWERS
- ENVIRONMENT: WORLD WATER DAY
- SPORT: 2003 CRICKET WORLD CUP
- RENEWABLE ENERGY
- NUCLEAR ENERGY: WASTE STORAGE
- IRAN: ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION
- MINISTERIAL STATEMENTS
- DELEGATION REPORTS
APPROPRIATION BILL (NO. 3) 2002-2003
APPROPRIATION BILL (NO. 4) 2002-2003
- BROADCASTING SERVICES AMENDMENT (MEDIA OWNERSHIP) BILL 2002
TRANSPORT SAFETY INVESTIGATION BILL 2002
TRANSPORT SAFETY INVESTIGATION (CONSEQUENTIAL AMENDMENTS) BILL 2002
- CUSTOMS LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL (NO. 2) 2002
- Information Technology: Policy
- Indigenous Affairs: Banking Services
- Gaudron, Justice Mary
- Indigenous Affairs: Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights
New South Wales: Election
- Fuel: Ethanol
QUESTIONS ON NOTICE
Gippsland Electorate: Programs and Grants
(O'Brien, Sen Kerry, Ellison, Sen Chris)
(Allison, Sen Lyn, Hill, Sen Robert)
Trade: Export Finance Insurance Corporation
(Brown, Sen Bob, Hill, Sen Robert)
Dairy Structural Adjustment Program
(O'Brien, Sen Kerry, Macdonald, Sen Ian)
Indian Ocean Territories Health Service
(Crossin, Sen Trish, Macdonald, Sen Ian)
Defence: Anthrax Vaccination
(Lees, Sen Meg, Hill, Sen Robert)
- Gippsland Electorate: Programs and Grants
Tuesday, 25 March 2003
Senator HARRADINE (4:45 PM) —The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2002 would change the regulation of a particularly complex area of legislation. It would change the boundaries we place on Australian media, and specifically television, radio and newspapers. I have found the questions involved in thinking through this legislation particularly challenging. I acknowledge that I have been assisted by the Senate processes, submissions made to the committee and the committee's report. I also want to place on record my thanks to the delegations that have made representations to me both for and against the bill. I thank them for the time and work they put into informing me of their views.
Other senators in this place have similar views to mine on the general outcomes we want from this legislation. I think it would be fair to say that many of us would like to have a simpler and clearer system of regulation which would prevent further media concentration but allow the media industry to expand for the benefit of the general community. Achieving legislation which meets those objectives is the difficult part.
When considering this bill there is a very important question to be asked. It is one that was posed by the Communications Law Centre: what does this bill do to benefit the Australian public? I recognise that it is generally in the commercial interest of media companies to expand, but is it generally in the public interest? I come to this debate with a particular aim in mind and that is to ensure that we have an equitable system of media regulation which enhances the diversity of news services by both protecting against a concentration of resources in fewer hands and ensuring that the market is more open so that new providers can enter and provide other voices. My particular focus is on news because I see the provision of news services as the most important function of media organisations.
I am particularly concerned about how this legislation will impact on my own state—Tasmania. Media organisations are central components of local communities around Australia. Earlier this month I reflected, in a piece that I wrote for the Launceston Examiner, on the importance of media to these communities. I said:
News coverage of local issues and events, in simple community newsletters and newspapers, on radio and commercial television, builds awareness of issues important to all Tasmanians. We rely on news from a variety of sources to be able to participate fully in our community. Local media not only informs and builds awareness—it binds and strengthens a sense of community.
The media is also very important to the operation of a democracy. Without a range of opinions through television, radio, newspapers and other sources, it is hard for us to make an informed judgement about what is happening in our local, state or federal governments. It is also harder for the media to play its role in helping to keep governments accountable to the people.
Because of the important role media organisations play in public debate and in our daily lives, owning a media company is a significant privilege which comes with significant obligations to the community. But, having said that, I have always had a strong interest in television broadcasting standards, quality and content. Television in particular has a very big impact on community standards and more broadly on Australian culture.
In a debate on an earlier broadcasting bill back in 1987, I referred to a second reading speech made in 1956 by Mr Davidson, the then Postmaster-General—I was actually working with the engineering division of the Postmaster-General's Department at the time—who said:
Television stations are in a position to exercise a constant and cumulative effect on public taste and standards of conduct, and, because of the influence they can bring to bear on the community, the business interests of licensees must at all times be subordinated to the overriding principle that the possession of a licence is, indeed, as the Royal Commission said, a public trust for the benefit of all members of our society.
Forty-seven years after the then Postmaster-General made those comments, I think this is still a central point. Those who own or run media organisations are in a position of privilege and influence. They are members of an unelected elite which is not effectively accountable to the Australian people. It is our job as elected legislators to ensure not only that there are reasonable parameters set for the running of successful media businesses but, much more importantly, that these parameters serve the Australian people.
I have a number of concerns with the bill as it stands. These include the likelihood of a further concentration of media ownership resulting from the legislation, particularly mergers of large media groups; the delegation of decisions on cross-media ownership to a regulatory body, where interpretation of parliament's intentions will become an issue and where monitoring and enforcement of decisions with large media companies would be difficult; and the lack of cross-media ownership restrictions for other media such as pay TV and Internet based media.
It seems to me that under this bill a number of the largest media organisations in Australia would be able to merge and establish substantial cross-media companies. I cannot see how such mergers would be in the public interest when the largest media organisations already have a very large reach in Australia. For example, there is a company in Australia which has almost 70 per cent of the circulation of newspapers in the capital city and national newspaper market. There is a television network which has a potential audience reach of more than 70 per cent of the population. These are very influential organisations, and I would be concerned if they were to become yet more influential by purchasing ownership of other media from other sectors in the same audience areas.
To protect the public interest we need to ensure there is a diversity of media views in local and national markets, and to protect that diversity we need a diversity of owners. I take my thoughts on this point from the Productivity Commission. That commission is best known for its free-market views, so some may be surprised that in its broadcasting inquiry report it takes a bit of a different tack on media ownership. The Productivity Commission found that `the likelihood that a proprietor's business and editorial interests will influence the content and opinion of their media outlets is of major significance' and there is `a strong preference for more media proprietors rather than fewer'. The report concluded that ownership does matter. It stated:
... diversity of opinion and information is more likely to be encouraged by greater rather than less diversity in the ownership and control of the main media.
As I have said, I am also cautious about the delegation of decisions on cross-media ownership to a regulatory body. This is because I am conscious of the difficult role that Public Service agencies play as regulators. Parliamentary intentions can get lost in the journey from the Senate chamber to the regulator's decision. This is not because of bad faith on the regulator's part but because parliamentary policy decisions tend to be implemented by turning them into a procedure or process. If people or companies jump through the right hoops to meet the requirements of the process they then get their licence or approval, and the full implications of what is happening can get lost in the paperwork. I suppose that is where a public interest test can help to focus attention on the full implications.
In addition, I do have my doubts about the ability of already stretched regulators to find adequate resources to properly monitor the restrictions on media companies that are proposed in this bill. In particular, the monitoring of `separate and distinct processes for editorial decision making' seems to me to be a particularly difficult task, which if done properly would involve regular checks on the internal workings of newsrooms.
We have moved in Australia, for one reason or another, to a situation where one dominant provider has almost monopoly control of pay television. I agree that pay television includes a range of news views from content providers like Sky, the BBC and CNN, but I return to the Postmaster-General's comments:
Television stations are in a position to exercise a constant and cumulative effect on public taste and standards of conduct, and, because of the influence they can bring to bear on the community—
a broadcasting licence is—
... a public trust for the benefit of all members of our society.
I think the influence of pay television—an influence that is expected to grow over time as it competes more successfully with free-to-air television—should also be subject to regulation in this bill. I note it is proposed that there be a review of the operation of the legislation after three years, but by that time the Australian media landscape may have changed irrevocably.
This is not to say that the current legislative framework is without problem. Under the current arrangements, newspaper groups are increasingly sharing resources between their masthead papers. I saw the other day that the wrong masthead was in a particular newspaper—we know what paper it was; it has a number of papers throughout the country. It had the masthead of the originator paper and not of the receiver of the general information.
Under the current arrangements, newspaper groups are increasingly sharing resources between their masthead papers while radio stations in some regions are taking syndicated programming. Media organisations may be restricted in owning too big a slice of media operations in particular markets or licence areas, but in some cases they have a very big reach across Australia as a whole. I would like to be able to support an equitable new approach to regulating the Australian media to fix up some of the problems that have emerged under the current system. I would like to support a system that would allow the Australian media to expand their businesses, without reducing what I consider to be the vital factor of diversity of ownership.
One part of this bill which has not had as much attention as the regulatory mechanisms for media ownership is the foreign ownership issue. I must say that I am not very comfortable with reducing foreign ownership restrictions. Australian media is a very important cultural commodity and I would be concerned to see further foreign ownership of organisations which are so central to the depiction, support and development of Australian culture. However, my decision on this issue depends very much on how I respond to the cross-media ownership aspect of the bill. These two aspects of the bill could have very different effects if they are accepted by themselves or as a package. I would like to consider further the question of the foreign ownership aspect of the legislation when I have come closer to a final position on the cross-media laws.
A range of amendments and alternative proposals have been circulated in the Senate over the past month. Though many of these have very good and attractive aspects, I am yet to be fully convinced by any of the various regulatory schemes that have been floated. I am also not aware of the government's position on some of the proposals that have been put forward. I imagine that the communications minister, Senator Alston, will use his second reading speech to put forward the government's position on these and to detail any proposal that the government may have for amendments. I will consider this new information before deciding how I vote.